Is Your Backyard Toxic?

Keep your family healthier at home: Don't overlook these surprising hazard zones in your backyard.

Could this be you?

In the early 1990s, Paul Tukey, now 51, was a successful professional landscaper. But by the spring of 1993, he noticed alarming symptoms, like eye twitches and bad headaches, then nausea, nosebleeds, and diarrhea. When his doctor asked him to bring in the labels for the chemicals he used at work, he learned that all the symptoms were known side effects of the products. 

Most of us assume that if a product is on the market, it must be safe. But of the most common of the 80,000 chemicals used today in the United States, only 7 percent have been fully tested for safety. Many are found in everyday products we use to maintain yards and gardens, so knowing where they lurk can help ensure your outdoor space is a healthier place for your family.

Shiny Black Driveway: The problems

The sticky black coal tar sealants that give driveways their well-manicured look may contain carcinogenic chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAH concentrations in these sealants are hundreds of times higher than those in other major sources, such as exhaust smoke. A Baylor University study found that house dust in apartment buildings next to coal tar–sealed parking lots contains 25 times as many PAHs as dust in buildings next to unsealed asphalt lots. Since this is a new area of research, scientists can’t say for sure that exposure to driveways containing PAHs causes cancer in people, but they suspect a strong link.

Shiny Black Driveways: What you can do

Coal tar sealants have been banned in a handful of cities and counties, but no matter where you live, avoid coal tar varieties and stick with natural pavement or an asphalt-based sealant. The farther your home is from a source of coal tar sealants, the fewer chemicals will creep in from outside. If you already sealed your driveway this season, keep off it as much as possible, especially for the first two weeks after sealing, after which the PAH concentration decreases dramatically. Avoid tracking chemicals into your home by removing your shoes at the door and regularly vacuuming.

Green Weed-Free Lawn: The problems

Ingredients in popular pesticides have been linked to cancer, hormonal changes, and liver or kidney toxicity. Now research points to another surprising peril: mental health hazards. Numerous studies have found that farmers who work with pesticides have as much as six times the risk of depression; even farmers’ wives who use sprays in their homes and backyard gardens have nearly double the risk.

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Green Weed-Free Lawn: What you can do

Use an all-natural herbicide like corn gluten meal to keep weeds at bay. Apply it in early spring (when forsythia or dogwood first blooms) to prevent annual weeds from reseeding; it also fertilizes your existing grass with nitrogen, so it is healthier (and can crowd out weeds). To help your lawn grow a stronger root system and better withstand weeds, skip daily watering. Instead, irrigate grass deeply once a week or once every few days, depending on the temperature and your soil, recommends Tom Kelly, a former lawn professional, who, like Tukey, switched careers when he started feeling sick and noticing illness in those around him. And beware of companies that purport to be organic, even as they use the same chemicals as traditional companies. “You have a right to request labels for products they use on your
lawn,” says Kelly.

Mosquito-Free Backyard: The problems

Community-wide sprays to destroy mosquitoes help alleviate public fears of bugborne illnesses such as West Nile virus and eastern equine encephalitis. But are the sprays themselves dangerous? They contain hormone disrupters and possibly carcinogenic chemicals—though studies documented harmful effects only in higher doses than municipal mosquito spray trucks deliver. Experts also question whether the sprays work: Some research suggests that the chemicals kill only mosquitoes that are airborne when the spray is released; others claim that spraying is the best defense we have.

Mosquito-Free Backyard: What you can do

Check your local health department’s spraying policy. Towns typically spray after dusk, when mosquitoes are at their worst and bees, innocent victims of spraying, have tucked in for the night. Stay indoors (with windows closed and window AC units off) to minimize your exposure. You also have the right to request that the trucks skip your house altogether (especially important if anyone in your family has asthma, which can be aggravated by the spray). You’ll get some drift from neighbors’ yards, but your exposure will be less. And bypass backyard fogger sprays—they contain the same chemicals but without the licensed pro to apply them.

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